The Knife of Never Letting Go and Rethinking Masculinity
*If you intend to read this fabulous novel in the future, perhaps leave this article for later*
The Knife of Never Letting Go reshapes and grapples with preconceived ideas of masculinity in heroes. Young Adult fiction has tremendous power, shaping the minds of the younger generation. And by young I mean, anyone who reads it. Despite what’s in the name, I think young adult literature refers to the age of the characters and the stage of life they are experiencing; not an indication of readership. With the current social climate, you could say that there is a masculinity crisis. Women are suddenly redefining what it means to be masculine (a.k.a objectifying women is no longer a masculine trait). Yeah, I’m talking to you Senator David Leyonhjelm!
Patrick Ness, the author of The Knife of Never Letting Go, deconstructs preconceived pillars of masculinity through his plot and characters.
Introducing Todd, our Hero
As with any young adult fantasy story featuring a prepubescent boy (there’s a lot of them), The Knife of Never Letting Go wrestles with concepts of masculinity. Enter Todd, our hero. And of course, his sidekick Manchee, RIP (SPOILERS!). Ness introduces Todd as a hot-headed, stubborn, thirteen-year-old boy. So far, we are travelling down the beaten track. Then, to shake it up, Patrick Ness throws in a curveball; all the women have died from a genetic weapon “unleashed” by the Spackle and, as a result, men and animals now have ‘Noise’. The Noise leaks out of every living creature and is the one tool that Ness uses to dissect our picture of masculinity. More on that later.
When Todd was an infant his mother and father were killed and so he was raised by two father figures, Ben and Clinton. The three boys live and work on their own farm, each with different roles within their ad hoc family. Here is where we find Todd in the first pages of the novel.
Todd’s character development
We see an absence of femininity here. There are no female role models in Todd’s home, nor is there any in his life. His only concept of living is masculine and in the opening of the novel appears to be syncing with preconceived ideas of masculinity. Todd’s character is earthly, stubborn and brutal. He resists Clinton’s own overbearing masculine nature of stubbornness and overbearing control. Here we see Ness breaking down the typical masculine hierarchy. Todd has little emotional and sentimental attachment to Clinton, the bossy, and alpha masculine figure. He finds his love and support through Ben, the sensitive and thoughtful brother.
Now, when good literature dissects concepts, they begin with the preconceived ideas, then deconstruct them, twisting them using character development, setting and plot. Ness isn’t portraying masculinity as the enemy, only the detrimental nature of our preconceived expectations of masculinity. With Todd’s character, he endeavours to break down our mindset and ideas of masculinity and present us with an alternative.
Todd’s character develops through the novel; from meeting Viola and suffering her silence, meeting Hildy, his revelation of how Prentisstown defines masculinity, to killing the Spackle and eventually, his determination to save Viola when she needs him. In these developments, we witness Todd’s character evolve, where he meets women, he listens to them and sees them as nothing less than himself.
Ness and breaking down the toxicity of hyper-masculinity
Our history has sculpted men to be the provider, the authority and the power. Ness explores these concepts and highlights how they are toxic in historic masculinity. He builds a clever comparison between the hometown ethics Todd grows up learning and the ethics of the other towns in the New World.
Traditional masculinity involves the idea of men being the provider. They work and provide safety, a home and food. Their contributions to the home are celebrated and commended. Todd occupies this traditional landscape until he meets Viola. At the beginning of Todd’s and Viola’s relationship, we are treated with very little dialogue, aside from Todd yelling profusely and Manchee’s adorably observant remarks.
Todd is severely distressed by Viola’s silence. He cannot comprehend this new silence and where it comes from. Despite this, Todd is inclined to help her, and, on several occasions, he is willing to blindly follow her. Todd pushes past his fear and decides to let her guide him.
“Manchee gets twixt me and the girl like he is following her now, instead of me, and off they go into the dark. I keep my distance, but I follow, too.”
Todd doesn’t reject Viola’s new role as the provider and protector at that moment. He operates without prejudice to her gender, despite growing up in a town that devalues women.
What Todd does grapple with is Viola’s lack of noise. He feels the power of her absence of noise and fears it. He feels it overcoming him. His feelings are natural and relevant; however, he never entertains them as action against Viola. He sees it, rather, as a reflection of his own character. When the men of Prentisstown catch up with Todd and Viola, Todd is overwhelmed by Viola’s silence,
“NOTHING! You’re nothing but EMPTINESS.”
Todd describes her silence that shallows him, his anger builds, and he has the urge to hit her. Instead, he redirects his violent anger towards himself. Ness constructs a picture of self-punishment. Todd punishes himself for feeling such anger for someone who is simply existing as they are. Someone who is different from his concept of what is normal.
Ness constructs an intriguing contrast between Todd’s developing masculinity and the oppressive nature of hyper-masculinity that exist in the Major and Prentisstown. Women were killed in Prentisstown. They provided no value. Traditional masculine ideals were injected in him, however, he rejects them, once realised from the confines of the town. And surrenders his role as the sole, celebrated provider, for love, respect and friendship.
Authority is another staple in the image of typical masculinity. The men have the authority to make decisions for the home and the town. Todd grows up accepting male authority, we see this especially in how they define the exact time he becomes ‘a man’. He has no other alternative, but to live up their philosophy. Prentisstown is a hive of hyper-masculinity in the novel, however, when Todd breaks away from the shackles of the town, he embraces the advice of many powerful female characters.
Throughout Todd and Viola’s journey, Ness assigns a few male characters (outside of Prentisstown) that struggle with hyper-masculinity, leading them to violent tendencies and oppressive behaviour. Ness constructs an interesting contrast between these men and the respected advice Todd receives from female characters, such as Hildy and Viola.
Todd respects Hildy’s age and authority when he is confronted with Mathew Lye outside of Farbranch town centre.
“I twist the knife in my hand a time or two but then I ready behind my rucksack and put it away.” pg. 177
Todd respects Hildy’s statue and authority in the town, and he’s not prejudiced to the fact that she’s a woman. His behaviour in his scene shines a light on the fundamental injustice of hyper-masculinity in the Prentisstown. Where women were assigned no value, and all masculinity was the embodiment of authority, leading to the violent murder of all the women.
Now power. The big one. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? I think Ness’s story warns us when power is earmarked for a particular group. That power than festers to oppressive superiority, eventually causing the power group to consider other groups inhuman, beneath them, leading to barbaric betrayals of human liberties.
Ness’s story points to how hyper-masculine power is the result of the role of provider and authority being reserved wholly for masculinity. Both Prentisstown and Carbonel Downs are threads that emulate this idea. Carbonel Downs is our first setting (apart from Prentisstown) that women are stripped of power, authority and ownership. We see the typical embodiment of masculinity in Doctor Snow and his companions. Viola is the first to the notice the power displacement of women in Carbonel Downs,
“Men’s thoughts, Todd,” she says. “Men. And you notice he said was going to ask eldermen to come seek out your advice.”
Todd fears all the women have been killed there too, however, Viola continues,
“Oh, there’s women, they clean and cook and make babies and they all live in big dormitory outside of town where they can’t interfere in men’s business.” (pg. 362).
Viola notices and highlights that power is a masculine trait. What I love about how Ness destructs hyper-masculinity, is how he portrays the men who embody this philosophy. How they believe masculinity embodying ideals of power, authority and the provider are the pillars of a successful society. We see this in both the Major of Prentisstown and Doctor Snow. Ness brilliantly portrays this fundamental ideal that defines Prentisstown and also the underlying power of the patriarchy.
All these hyper-masculine pillars are tied to Ness’s use of Noise. Women view Men’s Noise as something to tolerate and is certainly not admired. The Noise works to strip men from the higher ground of authority and power, dethroning them of their status of the provider. When we no longer define masculinity by these pillars, but rather kindness, compassion and humanity; women and men ascend to a position of power equally. Especially seen in the case of Tam, Hildy’s sister.
Don’t worry there’s more
Well, that’s my dissection of how Ness breakdowns traditional pillars of masculinity, and rebuilds masculinity based on equality.
Lucky for us infatuated fans, The Knife of Never Letting Go is the FIRST book in the Chaos Walking series. Yes, it’s a series, there is more of this genius to soak up!
Currently, I am plunging into the second instalment, The Ask and the Answer (shout out Kellie for providing reading material). You’ll be happy to hear that Ness continues his exploration into masculinity and how to unpack the difference between oppressive masculinity and a healthy identity.
Patrick Ness’s series also delves into issues of racial hate, violence and leadership, so stay tuned for more essays to come!
Get to know the editor
Sean Bradley is the editor behind the scenes at Fatally Narrow. He is a true literature enthusiast and feminist comrade, who never fails to pick up on my misplaced commas.